Book Review - All Dogs are Blue

Rodrigo de Souza Leão deliberately blurs the line between reality and fantasy in his heartbreaking portrayal of life in a Rio mental asylum. A poet and novelist, Souza Leão was himself confined to home and mental institutions for most of his life and died in a psychiatric clinic, aged just 44, shortly after publishing All Dogs are Blue. It is easy to forget that people who suffer from delusions actually believe that their imagined experiences are real, the paranoid are convinced that they are persecuted, and undergo genuine trauma and confusion. It is this aspect of mental illness that Souza Leão conveys so brilliantly in his mesmerising novella.

The adult narrator has been sectioned by his parents after he smashes up the furniture. He believes that he has swallowed a chip and owns a blue dog— the colour of his medicine, Haldol. His only friends, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, are imaginary. When serial killer Fearsome Madman joins the asylum, the narrator is pleased to discover that he scares the murderer because he reminds him of the father who beat him as a boy. He is attuned to the tragi-comic elements of his incarceration. Commenting on one of his fellow inmates who repeatedly bangs his head against the wall, he muses: “Imagine if that freak were a footballer, His headers would be unstoppable… Maybe he’d get called up to play for Brazil.”

Infantilised in the asylum and by his parents, the protagonist’s mind throws up vivid thoughts and constructs complex scenarios at an alarming rate – much like a child’s overactive imagination. Moments of lucidity are abruptly interrupted by “the gang” who “bayonet” him with chemicals. He observes himself as he grows fat and starts to drool or masturbates silently. Throughout he waits for his salvation; to be deemed well and released from the asylum. Towards the end of the novel he founds a cult known as Todog (read in reverse and you have one of many Beckettian allusions in the work).

For the narrator, heavily sedated “to keep a state of order”, the overcrowded asylum comes to represent Brazil: “There were all those poor people, really poor people: this was Brazil. A total mess. People lying on the floor. People dead on arrival. People dying.” Later, he laughs at the Christian who visits the patients: “Fundamentalists are taking over the world. They’re even coming here to recruit the utterly fucked.”

Souza Leão autobiographical account of schizophrenia is written with tremendous verve and perspicuity, crisply translated by Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler. All Dogs are Blue is a profound examination of the tricks and quirks of a fragile mind and Souza Leão demonstrates with startling humour how easy it is to tip from sanity into delusion.

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